written by Clay Johnson
This article is about how important your parents are to you throughout your life. I realized this in a profound way on January 13th of this year when my father, Ernest Clay Johnson, Sr. died from a massive heart attack. He was 78 years old. He had not been sick; it was just very sudden.
My father was the backbone of our family. At the funeral home, I noticed how many people loved and respected my father. Some of them I knew, and some I didn’t, but they were telling me what a good friend my father had been to them over the years, and then they told me how proud he was of me for all the challenges I’d overcome in my life. They told me how proud he was of me for what I’d accomplished in the martial arts over the years. You see, I did not know that my father felt that way and it “floored” me.
My mother also told me that she and my father were very proud and happy for me in July of 2001 when I received my Associate Instructorships from Guro Inosanto. Again, I didn’t know that they felt this way about it. During this talk, I told my mom that I was thinking about stopping my training and going to seminars for awhile and she said no, that my father would want me to continue and not stop, and she felt the same way. In the six months since my father passed away, I have been remembering things both mom and dad did for me when I was a child, and I would like to share a few of these memories with you.
As I have mentioned in other articles, I’ve had lots of surgeries over the years. One particular summer, I had two surgeries: one on my left ear and one on my legs. I had a cast on my legs, and they were spread apart by a bar at a 45-degree angle. One afternoon, my dad said we were going to the drive-in movie that night. So, they put me in a long lawn chair that we had, then in the back of my father’s truck, and drove on the interstate 10 miles to the drive-in movie. When we got there, my father backed the truck into the space so I could see. I recall that other people didn’t like that because they said they couldn’t see, but my father said that if they didn’t like it they could move. That’s how we went to the a few more times that summer. Now that I think back, I see what a good thing it was, and also, it was “very cool.”
In 1969 or 1970, my parents got me my first 3-wheeled bicycle – or I should say, they built it for me. You see, like every other little kid, I wanted, and needed, a bike. The “need” part was that my doctors said I had to have some way to keep my legs loose. I simply wanted to be able to ride a bike. Up to this time, my father had put me on every size tricycle there was until I outgrew them all. Then, he went out and bought a 22” 2-wheeled bicycle. At that time, there were no 3-wheeled bikes for big kids or adults. My dad took the bike 50 miles to the nearest bike shop, and asked them to turn it into a a 3-wheeler, which they did. It was very important to a little boy who was handicapped and without many friends. That bike opened up the world to me.
A few years later, my mom got me into weightlifting in a round about way. A friend of hers from work said her son had a set of weights and a bench to sell for $30.00. When she got it home, I fell in love with it. I don’t think my mom thought I would stick with it, but I am still weight training today. It’s not to make girls notice me, like it was when I was 16! Now, at 43, weight training helps me with the martial arts, and also to get around better (walking).
I have to hand it to my mom and dad, because when I was born in 1961, parents who didn’t want a child with a disability had only to sign their parental rights over to the state, and that child became a ward of the state. They could have done that, but chose to keep me, and I am grateful. When I started studying martial arts at 22, my mom didn’t like the idea because she thought I’d get hurt, or someone would try to hurt me. I think my dad had the same fear, but he never voiced it. A few months later, a friend who had been going to class with me was working out with me at my house, and we decided to spar a round or two. My dad was watching us, although I didn’t know it at the time. As we sparred, my friend was getting the better of me, hitting me hard and often. I don’t think he was trying to hit me hard, but because I was in my wheelchair, and couldn’t move that well or get out of the way, it probably seemed harder. While we were sparring, he came in close, and I hit him with a backfist he didn’t see, and I think it knocked him a little silly, because he wasn’t too steady on his feet. I don’t think I hurt him, but it embarrassed him in front of my dad. After that, my friend said he had to go home and we never sparred again. Later, my dad said that he was always going to be worried, but after that, he knew I could take care of myself.
When I started competing in tournaments, my parents had to work. So they didn’t get to see me compete much, but when they did, they enjoyed themselves. In 1990, when I started training with Rob Kelly of Charlotte, North Carolina, I had already been training with Guro Inosanto for about a year. The trip from my house to Charlotte and back was 500 miles. I’d leave my house by 7:30 or 8:00 a.m., meet Rob at 1:00 p.m., work out for 3 hours, and then drive back home the same day. I did this once a month for six years. In 1991, my dad retired, and he offered to drive me to Charlotte when I had class, and I said sure, that would be great. He did that until 1996. My dad also took me to seminars when no one else could take me. I know he probably didn’t always feel like it, but he did it anyway. I know my father liked and respected all my instructors, because they showed a genuine interest in teaching me, and they liked me.
I have one last little story to tell about my father. He told me this happened one day a few years before he retired. He said a co-worker came to his department and asked my dad how I’d gotten into karate, and without batting an eye, my dad told him he’d been a black belt for over 30 years. Dad said the guy never got within 10 feet of him from that day on. At the time, I thought it was really funny. I still do. The day my dad died, I gave him an honorary first-degree black belt and put a black belt in his casket with him. My dad always kidded with me, telling me he could whip my butt. If he were still with us, I wouldn’t mind if he did.
I would like to thank some people, including my family, friends and extended family who have been concerned about me and my mom during this very hard time: Guro Dan and Simo Paula Inosanto, Carmen Bergman, Chip Reves, and my students as well. Without their friendship, I don’t know if I would have made it through this very hard time.
I hope someday I’ll be half the man my father was.